17 January

How Lies Killed The Circus, Ruined Lives, Endangered Elephants

by Jon Katz
How Lies And Ignorance Killed The Circus

Zealot: A person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political or other ideals.

It usually begins with an outpouring of heart-rending videos of abused animals online – sometimes horses, sometimes dogs or cats, ponies and elephants. There is a whole library of elephant abuse videos on social media, they are graphic and wrenching. The donation buttons are always close by.

They are big money-makers, people write checks or rush to Paypal when they see them, sign petitions, and join up. Those videos are very often the very boundaries of many people’s narrow understanding of the lives of working animals and the feelings of the people who keep them alive.

For years, PETA and other animal rights groups have been flooding the Internet with these videos, just as they flooded the Web with photos of abused carriage horses when they went after the New York Carriage Trade. These claims of abuse, rarely, if ever, substantiated, set the template for the growing movement to free the elephants from the circus, even as no one had or has any idea of where most of them will go.

Since the videos suggested that circus elephants were being abused, Ringling Brothers had no real way to defend itself against the inference that they must also still be abusing their elephants, assuming they once were.

How do you disprove a lie? And when did the struggle for animal welfare become a campaign to destroy the lives of people who care for them and keep them alive?

It is one of the ironies of the human condition that lies grow and propagate, the truth, the pretty flowers, are  choked to death by weeds. The animal rights campaign against Ringling Brothers is a travesty, and ought to be a crime. It was built on a pillar of lies and will leave great suffering in its wake. It will do nothing to help the vanishing domesticated animals of the world and much to harm, even kill, them.

A fund-raising analyst on Wall Street told me this morning on the phone that the elephant and other animal abuse videos are the biggest money-raisers on the Internet, they are a gold mine for animal rights organizations seeking funds.They raise hundreds of millions of dollars a year, he said.

If only truth were as easily transmitted as emotion. He told me these online videos are responsible for “close to half” of PETA’s annual revenue.

As it happened in my research, none of those horse videos were from the horses of  New York Carriage Trade, and several were found to be photos and videos of horses that had dropped dead of old age or natural causes in faraway places, several overseas. A couple were the accidents that happen to horses sometimes, as they do to people.

None of the abused elephant videos being shared all over Facebook were of Ringling Bros. elephants. Does that actually matter? It seems not.

In the curious world of animal rights, ideology and emotion trumps the truth every time, any means to an end is okay.

The people are always evil, the animals always suffering, the animals always need to go away. They are never seen again. Animal rights is closing in on climate change as the greatest threat to many animals in the world. Animals are disappearing everywhere.

The people of Ringling Brothers, like the New York carriage drivers, were dehumanized, and have become the latest victims of a movement that claims to speak for the rights of animals but wantonly denigrates and tramples the rights of people. Before you can destroy people, you must remove their humanity. And the campaign was successful, of the many media reports announcing the end of the circus, I did not find one animal trainer quoted in any way. They are no longer to be considered.

But the problem is, the circus workers, like the carriage drivers are very human. Just like you, just like me.

Somewhere along the line, we lost the idea of solving problems, we just want to fight about them and blow them up.

Just imagine if the same “video” justice were applied to pet or child abuse, if real or false images of abuse were circulated on the Internet without verification or context and used to destroy mothers, fathers, and animal shelters. There is abuse, for animals, for elephants, for people. Is it part of the story, it is not ever the whole story. This use of imagery is manipulative, and often the result of greed, not compassion. It is no way to seek out the truth.

And don’t think it can’t  happen to you and your dog or cat or horse or cow. It can, and does, every day.

True justice suggests we punish the guilty, not harass the innocent.

This week, after years of harassment, lawsuit after lawsuit, Ringling Brothers announced it was shutting its circuses down.

There were a number of factors leading to the death of the circus, but the largest was the long and costly campaign against Ringling Brothers and their elephants by the animal rights movement.

I am writing about this to try to shed some truth and reality over what is truly an American tragedy, for the elephants, for people, for children, for magic, and for the future of animals in our world. It did not need to happen. It accomplishes nothing but pain and suffering.  It does nothing for elephants or other animals.

I am a lifelong supporter of animal rights organizations, I have written many checks to their organizations and supported the idea that animals need protection from humans. I won’t be writing any checks from now on, the institutions of animal welfare – PETA, the U.S. Humane Society, the A.S.P.C.A. – have become something very different – a growing threat to animals and human beings.

It was a surprise to me when I went to New York City several years ago and began researching the attacks in the New York Carriage Trade. I am a former  investigative reporter, journalist, editor and producer  – the Atlantic City Press, the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, CBS News, Wired Magazine, Rolling Stone, The New York Times. I am by no means perfect or always accurate, but I do know how to gather information and evaluate it. None of my findings about the carriage trade were challenged or had to be withdrawn.

I lean towards the progressive side of things but I was taught that facts are sacred and truth more important than argument.

I began researching the bitter and ugly campaign against the carriage drivers and stable owners in New York, and what I found was that the animal rights groups involved lied repeatedly, and as a strategy,  and without hesitation. Lies have worked well for them.  I have never known one to issue a correction, an apology, clarification or retraction. They lie a brazenly and as often as any entity or institution I have ever encountered.  They have become a network of cults, unwilling to listen, reason, or compromise.

Lie loudly and often and many people will believe you. We are seeing that every day in America. Most reporters are too lazy or busy to check things out and are happy to quote anyone with an outrageous or emotional statement. Journalists quote officials and institutions, rarely people. We learned in November that they have lost touch with the country.

If you don’t lie back, and quickly,  your voice will be lost in the din. Truth takes more time.

Almost nothing I heard or read from the animal rights groups was true. They simply made up what they could not prove and replaced old lies with new ones when they were debunked. Their spokespeople defined shameless. Lying did not trouble them in any visible way.  I was not looking for this or happy to see and hear it. It was a shock to me. Truth matters, and when we stop caring about truth, the alternative is anarchy and suffering.

Their statements about the carriage horses – and Ringling Brothers – was either an outright lie, an unsubstantiated allegation, or a distortion designed to raise money and manipulate emotions. The people of New York rejected these untruths and the carriage trade is safe, at least for now. But the people in the carriage trade have suffered greatly from harassment and abuse and cruelty.  They have done nothing wrong, and yet they live in perpetual fear. That is not my idea of liberty.

No court or police agency or reputable institution has found them guilty of any kind of wrongdoing.

It is by now apparent that a fundamental strategy of the animal rights movement is to dehumanize its targets, to demonize people as cruel and abusive, as living beings that are less than human. Once this is accomplished, it is fairly simple to drive them from the moral community of institutions and people. Politicians, like corporations, run from trouble.

If you attack someone often enough, they will run. Just ask Tawni Angel, who for years gave children pony rides in the Santa Monica, Calif.,  Farmer’s Market until two animal rights activists decided giving rides to children was torture for ponies. Two different police investigations found that the ponies were well cared for and healthy, but the City Council panicked and withdrew her contract of more than 20 years. It is not clear if she will be able to keep her ponies.

Or Joshua Rockwood, a farmer from Glenville,N.Y., whose horses were seized and he was charged with 13 counts of animal cruelty after secret informers from animal rights groups called the police to say his animals were being abused. Two different veterinarians testified his animals were healthy and well cared for.  Joshua’s water tanks had frozen in -30 degree temperatures and he was charged with failing to provide water to his animals. (My water tanks froze also, so did the toilets in the Glenville Town Hall). He nearly lost his farm.

After farmers across the country raised more than $70,000 for his legal fees, all of the charges against him were dropped and his horses were returned to him. I am proud to say he is now my friend.

Tawni Angel was accused of nothing and convicted of nothing, and lost her livelihood and the ponies may lose their lives.

That is what is happening all over the country, it is what animal rights organizations are still trying do to the New York carriage drivers, it is what they successfully did to the Ringling Brothers circus, to so many farmers and pet owners, pony ride operators and animal lovers,  and the many good and loving people who work there. Most people can’t raise $70,000 or pay the legal fees Ringling Brothers paid. They are helpless when attacked.

The great irony is that the animal rights movement is now one of the country’s most relentless and cruel persecutors of the very people most likely to save animals, care for them, work with them and keep them in our world. Read for yourself the eloquent testimony of Megan O’Malley who has worked for Ringling Bros for the past five years.

This is the now familiar story of the sadly successful attack on Ringling Bros., which not only endangers elephants and damages innocent people, but has robbed America of one of its most iconic traditions, and deprived children of any chance to see the magic of these animals.

This notion – that animals must be removed from people – threatens the well-being of every animal lover and domesticated animal in America.

Some truth and facts:

Ringling Brothers has never been convicted of animal cruelty or abuse by any court, judicial entity or jury. The circus won every single one of the many and expensive lawsuits filed against it. Do our legal system and traditions and due processes no longer have any meaning or relevance when it comes to the animal world? What is justice for the elephants and the workers in the circus when they can be libeled and defamed at will and have their way of life, security and property taken from them by vigilante social mobs?

Elephants are not  better off living idly in these so-called (mostly mythical) preserves than in the care of a conscientious circus. Any trainer, veterinarian, behaviorist will testify that working animals like elephants and carriage horses and working dogs suffer greatly when they are torn from their familiar environments and human connections and left to stand in small enclosures for the rest of their lives with nothing to, no stimulation, exercise or purpose.

Working animals without work become disoriented, their muscles atrophy, they develop illnesses and behavioral problems. If you know an elephant or a trainer, then  you know the great love and connection they often have for one another. The idea of the wild has become emotionalized beyond reality.

Not only does it no longer exist, but it is a harsh and brutal place for animals, who suffer from poachers, predators, disease, the elements, the struggle for good,  the savagery of animal hierarchies. The animals who work with responsible people are among the luckiest animals on the earth.

I suppose this is opinion, not fact, but when one woman on my Facebook Page wrote that “people who use animals to entertain us and make us laugh ought to go to jail,” I stopped and was, for once, speechless. It is not, to me, a crime when animals lift up people, entertain them, and make them laugh. Are we supposed to get our spirits lifted by the news? Or by angry messages on Facebook?

Uplifting people is among the noblest traditions of the animal world, what an awful shame to make it a crime, or to equate it with real abuse. Our society seems to be getting grimmer and more Puritanical all the time. And what were the Pilgrims, after all, except politically correct? I hope to not live in a joyless world without magic, the demise of the circus will make that much more difficult. I tremble a bit for my granddaughter, who will never know the smells and sounds and feelings and drama of the circus.

These doomed circus workers are not people who choose this kind of work to torture and abuse animals. Neither are the horse  carriage drivers. Separating them from their elephants  is more cruel to the elephants than anything Ringling Brothers has been convicted of doing it is simply a new way for animals to be abused. And in our time, there are few worse abusers than the well-meaning ones with money and Facebook accounts.

The elephants are not returning to the wild. Most will not make it to those mystical preserves either. There is no wild for elephants to safely return to, they are being decimated in their habitats by poachers, climate change and human development. It costs up to $800 a day to feed an Asian elephant. Ringling Brothers has room for 13 elephants in Florida when the circuses close. Perhaps we might consider a law that would require anyone to demands the removal of animals from people who care for them to show where they will go and who will pay for their care.

In the case of the carriage horses, the animal rights groups said every horse had a place to go for life. This was false. In the case of the elephants, they are saying the same thing. That is also false.

Asian elephants are not wild animals like killer whales in Sea World. They have worked contentedly and productively and successfully for human beings for many thousands of years. Work is natural to them, they are bred for it. They are gentle and work well with people, whom they attach to powerfully, and vice versa. If you visit a circus like Ringling Brothers, you will see people showering their elephants with love and attention, even sleeping and eating with them. It is not cruel for working elephants to work, it is not cruel for working horses to pull light carriages in Central Park.

No animal rights or welfare movement can succeed when its primary ideology centers around the de-humanization and abuse of people. Up to 800 people from Ringling Brothers will lose their jobs and cherished way of life when the circus closes. Not a one has been convicted of any kind of abuse or crime, their only misstep is in pursuing work that they love around animals they care for.

More than half of the animal species on the earth have disappeared in the last generation, two thirds are expected to disappear by 2020, species are vanishing at more than 10,000 times their normal rate. The animal rights movement is not saving or rescuing a single one of these animals.

Killing A Way Of Life: People’s lives with animals are often a way of life, not just a question of work or ownership. The circus is a way of life, so is farming, pony rides, the carriage trade. The animal rights movement is attacking all of these ways of life and many others, they are working to separate animals from people.  These losses and mistakes cannot be replaced or undone. When a way of life is killed, something in our communities, history, magic and sense of freedom dies also.

The death of the circus is a loss to all of us, no matter what we think about the elephants.

NYCLASS is an animal rights group in New York City leading the effort to ban the New York Carriage Horses. For more than two years, I tried to find evidence of one single animal the group – which has spent millions of dollars of donated money in their crusade against the horses – had rescued or saved. I searched their websites (filled with photos of dying and tortured horses) and asked their representatives a score of times for one example.

“We don’t actually rescue animals,” one exasperated staffer finally told me before hanging up the phone. I wonder how many of their donors know that. Animals need advocates, not zealots.

I am especially sorry for the children. The circus was a magical point of awareness for children, and certainly for me. I am overwhelmed with poignant messages from circus workers, parents and adults who feel anguish over the destruction of the Ringling Brothers circuses. I have dozens of messages from circus workers who saw the elephants and trainers every day, and like Megan O’Malley, never saw one instance of abuse or mistreatment.

Is it possible they were all so blind to abuse that was so serious the circus needed to close, and they needed to lose their jobs?

These workers and their voices are sorely absent from the media coverage of the death of the circus. When Ringling Brothers announced the closings, a PETA executive gloated insensitively about the end of the “saddest show on earth.” For so many people, inside and out of the circus, it was anything but sad. Why, I wonder, did he need to gloat in that slick, marketing way. He was thinking of a catchy slogan, not of the wounded people and endangered elephants. That catchy statement says much about the heart of the movement – extremism, callousness and cruelty.

“I think it’s sad that generations of children will never have the wonder of the circus,” wrote Jennifer, whose aunt worked for Ringling Brothers for many years. “How do we inspire wonder, curiosity, dreams in children that will never again see these magnificent creatures in person. How many scientists, veterinarians, artists and animal lovers have been created because they sat on an elephant, took a carriage ride…”

A lot of animal lovers were created that way.

I was one of them. When I went to see the elephants at a Ringling Brothers performance in Providence, R.I. – the elephants would march proudly to the arena from the train station as thousands of wide-eyed children watched. I live with animals and write about them in part because of the elephants in the circus. I owe them the truth.

Children of the future will have to get their connection to nature and the animal world on their Ipads or You Tube. I think there is no sadder show than that.

The bottom line: We need a better understanding of animals than this. Animals desperately need a global movement to fight for their welfare, to search for ways to keep them in the world, to treat them and the people who love them with dignity and respect. I was a bit haunted by the last paragraph of Megan O’Malley’s post about the day after the circus closed, and the sorrow and fear felt by her co-workers.

“…I will never, NEVER, back or support organizations like PETA, ADI, ALF, HSUS, ASPCA, or any other similar terrorist group that pretends to help animals by putting the people who are keeping them alive out of work…I will ALWAYS maintain that I witnessed nothing but the best animal care during my five years of employment here.”

If I were an executive of an animal rights organization, that paragraph would cause me to pause and think deeply about what the rights of animal really are, and what the function of the animal rights movement really is if idealistic young people like Megan O’Malley hate it so much. As human beings, our own rights are diminished if the animals of the world do not survive with us, and the animals have no future at all if the people who are willing to care for them have no rights at all.


The circus is a jealous wench. Indeed that is an understatement. She is a ravening hag who sucks your vitality as a vampire drinks blood – who kills the brightest stars in her crown and will allow no private life for those who serve her; wrecking their homes, ruining their bodies, and destroying the happiness of their loved ones by her insatiable demands. She is all of these things, and yet, I love her as I love nothing else on earth.”

— Henry Ringling North, The Circus Kings: Our Ringling Family Story.



Email SignupFree Email Signup